Volcanic Wines

When I was at school I loved Geography. I’m sure it’s where my passion for travel came from. I think I was pretty young when I studied volcanoes, but they made a big impression, as did the consequences of their eruptions. Despite their destructive power, human beings have always been drawn to these fertile soils, and viticulture has been part of agriculture in these regions since man planted the grape vine.

It was back in the 1990s when I first became aware of “volcanic wines”, or wines made from vineyards on volcanic strata, and I soon formed a picture of some of the qualities which seemed to be present in them.

It is fashionable now, in some quarters, to deny the direct influence of “rocks” on wine. Before my subscription to World of Fine Wine was allowed to lapse, hardly an Issue went by without an eminent scientist demonstrating how minerals in the soil could not possibly transfer to the wine. The science is all well and good, but olfactory evidence suggests that the rock beneath vineyards, and the topsoils, do often correlate with some common characteristics in the wine, and I’ve always felt that this is nowhere more apparent than in wines emanating from volcanic terroir.

John Szabo MS has created a rather beautiful book about volcanic wines. It is subtitled “Salt, Grit and Power”. Salinity is often a feature of these wines. The grit for me comes as texture, which is often allied to a bouquet which can sometimes remind me of iron filings, and sometimes earth (occasionally terracotta). Szabo adds power, but I can’t taste one of these wines without finding a distinct freshness, on both the nose and palate.

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Volcanic Wines begins, after an introduction to where and how volcanoes form, in North America, working down from the Pacific Northwest (the Pacific Rim Volcanic Arc) to California, before travelling south, to Chile, perhaps where we find the most active volcanic activity today in the Andean Volcanic Belt. These chapters are very instructive on the geology and the wines, and the finest producers profiled here are often better known to Europeans than the nuances of terroir in this part of the world.

The next chapters cover some of Europe’s least known wine regions, throwing light on wines which are shouting out for a wider audience. Macronesia is a chapter on Madeira, The Canary Islands and The Azores. The wines of Tenerife, in the Canaries, are already getting a great deal of attention, largely through the brilliant bottlings from Suertes del Marques. It is perhaps fortuitous that the wines of the Azores, once famous in their own right, are undergoing a revival which has been acknowledged by Decanter Magazine (July 2017 edn), via an article by Sarah Ahmed.

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The wines of Pico, the island with the greatest concentration of vines in The Azores, are now being imported into the UK by innovative agent, Red Squirrel. They are pretty expensive, but also unique. The cost of producing wine from such remote islands, 900 miles from the Portuguese coast, is considerable. The UNESCO World Heritage landscape of dry stone walls (“Currais”) protects the low grown vines from sweeping Atlantic winds. In places, imported soil fills cracks in the solidified magma, allowing vines to be planted. It is a story of perseverance paying off.

From Macronesia, we move to Alsace and Germany, before a substantial section on Italy’s varied volcanic terrains: Etna, of course, then Basilicata, Campania, Tuscany and Soave. Naturally there is also a focus on the Greek Island of Santorini, before we finish in Hungary.

I was so pleased, here, to see a whole section on Somló. This unusual truncated cone, not far from Lake Balaton, reminds me a little of the Kaiserstuhl in Germany’s Baden wine region. Once famous for viticulture in the time of the Austro-Hungarian empire, it suffered under communist collectivisation. I know its wines through that favourite Austrian producer of mine, Meinklang. The family had owned vineyards here before the Iron Curtain came down, and after the fall of Communism, bought back into the region, where they make some of their finest, and most unique, wines (try the Juhfark varietal wine, which does especially well here).

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Volcanic Wines is a wonderful addition to any wine library. The wines John Szabo writes about may not have the fame of wines grown on other rock types – limestone being but one obvious example, yet they are wines of true singularity. The coffee table format belies the contents, which give just enough factual information about each region’s geological complexity, with good maps accompanying a host of attractive photographs.

I don’t intend to use very minor observations as a stick to beat the author, as some critics are wont to do, but I will say that on a personal level I regret one omission. The wines of Central France (Auvergne, Aveyron, etc) were some of the first in which I came to identify something unique about wines made from volcanic terroir. One or two have been available in the UK for some decades, yet whilst Szabo is a pioneer in identifying wines from The Azores (and to a degree, The Canaries), he may have been just a little too early in writing his book to pick up on the renaissance in viticulture in this part of France.

It would have been especially nice had Szabo been able to include reference to the wines of  Vincent Marie (No Control) , who makes wine north of Puy-de-Dôme in the Auvergne. If you make a cuvée called Magma Rock it deserves to be in a book on volcanic wines. All his wines are terroir specific examples of what the Auvergne’s volcanic terrain has to offer.

But you can’t cover everyone. I learnt a lot from this book, and even after writing this review, I shall continue reading, in order to cement much of the knowledge I have gained. If you are an open minded drinker, yet are wondering why you should read a book about a group of wines which cover a tiny part of the world’s vineyards, a good number of which one might rightly call “obscure”, I am sure that you will be won over. It scores especially highly on its overall look, and the photos almost have you tasting the wines. For the inquisitive wine lover, this book is highly recommended.

Volcanic Wines by John Szabo MS is published by Jacqui Small LLP, an imprint of Aurum Press (which published the highly acclaimed “Finest Wines…” series from World of Fine Wine). It retails for £30 in the UK, but of course can be obtained at a discount, should you wish, from the usual sites. There is a Foreword from Andrew Jefford, and the book was a worthy André Simon Memorial Fund Prize Winner.

                                          A few volcanic wines to whet the appetite

About dccrossley

Writing here and elsewhere mainly about the outer reaches of the wine universe and the availability of wonderful, characterful, wines from all over the globe. Very wide interests but a soft spot for Jura, Austria and Champagne, with a general preference for low intervention in vineyard and winery. Other passions include music (equally wide tastes) and travel. Co-organiser of the Oddities wine lunches.
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